Friday, June 15, 2007

Environmental thoughts

Going back to my original reflections about authentic living in multiple spheres, I was going to start with the spiritual aspect but the blog and my attention got hijacked by the environmental aspect, mainly because of the timing of things like Low Impact Week.

I'm not sure how this interest got started for me; in some ways it feels like it sprang suddenly full-formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, but in others it just seems like a natural progression that was being held back by the chaos of the past year. After all, I did grow up in Oregon, and Dr. Mitchell did get us all reading Wendell Berry junior year, and I did write my senior thesis on early conservationist theory and landscape design. (John Muir is an absolute trip and you should all read his letters. One of my favorite quotes from that project was from one of Muir's political opponents who exasperatedly characterized Muir's ideal as "me and God and the rock where God put it.")

So, armed with vague notions about nature, anti-modernism, community, and the human scale, I have found myself initiating some moderate lifestyle changes. I also find myself periodically depressed about their effectiveness against the vastness of the problem. I am too much of a libertarian to want the government to mandate personal changes (although I realize that infrastructures need to be significantly reorganized), but also too much of a pessimist about human nature to think that everyone will naturally do what is best for the rest of the world. (Passing reflection: could we say that people are too good for unbridled capitalism and not good enough for genuine socialism?)

But the whole project for me personally comes down to love and authenticity, and the need to act accordingly remains, regardless of whether human action has any impact on global warming, or whether peak oil is going to arrive in 5 years or 20 or never, or whether genuinely sustainable technologies are going to develop quickly enough to save us.

It is about authenticity, because trying to live in harmony with natural processes goes against the modernist tendency to alienate us from the rest of the natural world. I admit I like being comfortable; I don't like being cold or hot or dirty, and I've never gone camping. But neither do I really think that natural harmony is only about being as uncomfortable as possible. It's about developing a different way of looking at reality, trying to cooperate with it instead of resisting it unthinkingly at every turn and automatically relying on technology to create new realities (as valuable and necessary as this may be at times; I certainly don't mean that we should just let people die of diseases or stop trying to make more efficient use of the resources we have).

It is about love for other people, because I don't want to consume more than my share, in order that other people, anywhere in the world, at present and in the future, might have enough. I can't ensure that they will have it, but I can at least avoid wasting what they might otherwise be able to use.

It is about love for the planet in all its beauty and variety. I realize Christians have tended to dismiss this as "worldly" and unimportant (although the tide is turning). But the more I am drawn into sacramental theology, the more I acknowledge the vast and mysterious significance of physical things. One of these days, I want to pursue my suspicion that Orthodox theology provides a much deeper and more organic relationship of spiritual and material things than does the Western tendency to dichotomize the two, and try to work out its implications for environmental thought.

And for right now, it means making reasonable changes like recycling, gardening, and cutting back on disposable goods. It means trying to develop community. As an introvert, it's easy for me to retreat into loving people from a distance and allowing my lifestyle choices to substitute for meaningful interaction with real people. It means doing what I can, out of love and not out of guilt and peer pressure, to change the way I look at the world and act within it.

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